Morality and tribal politics

Source: Barbados Today / / By Ralph Jemmott /

It would seem that in many Western democracies, politics is becoming increasingly tribal. Adherents to political parties are more intransigent in their commitment to and defence of their particular constituencies. In some cases, the tribalism reflects a genuine conflict of vision or ideology. To some degree, this has always been true of the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States of America. However, until now, it has never presented the kind of hostility that we are currently witnessing.

Those who follow American politics may well remember when it was possible for the Republican president Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tipp O’Neal to find common ground and make the Federal government system function in the interest of the American people. The conflict has widened in recent times as Donald Trump has come to exercise an unwieldy and pernicious influence over the Republicans and more so, over the more right-wing elements in that party, including something calling itself the ‘Religious Right’. Trump’s ascendancy itself represents an unbelievable coarsening of the Office of the President. It also reflects a decline in the ethical culture of American politics and the onset of what Vaclav Havel once called the ‘demoralised society,’ a society where people live in a widening circle of lies, untruths and half-truths.

Political partisanship can reflect a real divergence of vision. There are serious differences between the American liberal left represented by a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren and the Republican right of a Lindsey Graham or a Mitch McConnell. But that vision should always be based on morality, on some notion of what constitutes ‘the public good.’

What is amazing about the Republican defence of Trump is the ostensible failure or reluctance to recognise that he constitutes an existential threat to the Rule of Law, the Constitution and the fundamental values of American democracy. One fundamental value is the enshrined notion of checks and balances, specifically the idea that Congress is a co-equal branch of American government with the presidency. This assault on American democracy is done by many Republicans in defence of a man of questionable intellect and equally questionable personal integrity.

The current discourse between the Democrats and Republicans in the US is essentially a question of political morality. This is true whether we are talking about gun control, the treatment of women and children on America’s southern border, failure to declare his taxes or to disassociate his business from his government. In the final chapter of his book, “The Power Elite”, C. Wright Mills notes that political immorality or what he terms ‘the higher immorality’ is a systematic feature of the American elite and its general acceptance an essential feature of the mass society, of ‘a blunted moral sensibility,’ of a ‘structural immorality.’

Two figures in current American discourse exemplify this structural immorality, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. Presented with all the evidence, Graham has described the proposed impeachment of Donald Trump as, ‘a sham based on accusations and hear-say.’ Sometimes the higher immorality of the political elites is greater than the general immorality of mass society.

Recent polls have shown growing public acceptance of the idea of an impeachment inquiry. A CBS poll found that some 55 per cent of Americans approve of impeachment. The CNN poll put the figure at 47 per cent, while a Quinnipiac survey put the figure around 52 per cent. However, Republicans are rallying around Trump. Mitch McConnell has stalled a bill on gun control in spite of the fact that an overwhelming majority of US citizens now favour control of assault weapons. More egregiously, Attorney General William Barr, perhaps the most sinister figure on the American political landscape, is travelling to world capitals to undermine investigations into the Trump–Russia connection, more specifically the idea that the President colluded with Russia to win the 2016 US elections.

How is all this possible in America today? How does a country become witness to what presidential candidate Cory Booker calls ‘moral vandalism?’ The answer is what C. Wright Mills termed the ‘higher immorality’. He writes: “The new values and codes of uprightness no longer grip men and women of the corporate era… Official Washington is no longer nourished by the ancient faith on which it was founded.”

A Republican president, Richard Nixon, was brought down by Republicans who felt they could no longer support him in good faith. Today, Senate Republicans are interested in securing their re-election in Red states, even if it means sacrificing their principals and the best tenets of the cherished American constitution. Former Republican senator Jeff Flake warned them: “You can go elsewhere for a job but you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”